Disney’s innovative experimental short film program that began in 2016 has just premiered its inaugural set of distinctly different films from 14 first-time directors.
Today marks the day the inaugural set of 14 animated films from Walt Disney Animation Studios’ Short Circuit program roll out on Disney+. 14 films, each around 2 minutes long, representing a diverse group of storytellers hand-picked -- from blind submissions -- to step away from their day jobs, pull up a director’s chair and helm a film. 14 films created by a group of artists who have worked in a variety of story, animation and technical roles on hit Disney animated features including Frozen, Frozen 2, Zootopia, Moana, Big Hero 6 and Wreck-It Ralph. But never as directors. Now, each was challenged to find their voice, come up with a story, settle on a look, wrangle studio resources and deliver an animated short. In four months.
An experimental program that began in 2016, where anyone at the studio could pitch an idea and potentially be selected to make their film, the Short Circuit program so far has provided 20 different artists the opportunity to make their own short. Though the first films were produced only for internal viewing, the program soon expanded with the goal of sharing the work with a wide audience through the new Disney+ streaming platform. Now, those films are finally available for all platform subscribers to enjoy.
The studio’s overriding goal has remained consistent since the innovative program’s inception: to incubate and surface new voices and artistic talent through visually and narratively risky filmmaking. It works, it doesn’t work, let’s give it a try… it’s time to let it go!
As with longer shorts produced at the studio, such as John Kahrs’ Oscar-winning Paperman and Patrick Osborne’s similarly honored Feast, films take advantage of feature animation’s incredible wealth and depth of talent, drawing from a significant pool of artists and other resources… when available. The catch is, since you get folks coming off one project, heading onto another, schedules shift constantly, and teams never know for sure whom and when and for how long they can count on anyone. No time to waste and little time to figure out your story, style, pipeline and schedule. Despite the hurdles, the finished work is an interesting and enjoyable mix of styles, narratives, shapes and sounds. Each quite different from the next.
AWN recently spent a morning with each of the 14 directors; here’s a short synopsis of their backgrounds, films and candid feelings about their projects and first-time directing experiences.
Cycles is a story centered around the true meaning of creating a home and the life that it holds inside its walls.
Director Jeff Gipson first joined the studio in 2013 as a lighting apprentice on Frozen. Gipson made his directing debut with Walt Disney Animation Studios’ first virtual reality short film, Cycles for which he won a Lumiere Award in 2019. He recently debuted his second VR short film Myth: A Frozen Tale, at the world premiere of Frozen 2.
For Gipson, not only did he face the challenge of developing the creative and technical pipelines for Disney’s first animated VR short, he also had to figure out how to migrate that immersive experience out of the virtual space and onto a standard 2D screen. “We had never done a short in VR or real-time at the studio, so this was the first time we were ever going to undertake that task,” he explains. “It was a challenge not just figuring out what that meant from a technology standpoint, a storytelling standpoint, and an art standpoint, but also pitching that to executives so they could understand how the story might unfold and get behind the idea. And then make a flat version that feels like the VR film? That wasn’t easy.”
In Downtown, a commuter’s disappointment in missing the bus turns into a colorful and unexpected joyride when the surrounding street art bursts to life, revealing the heart of the city from an entirely new perspective.
Director Kendra Vander Vliet joined Walt Disney Animation Studios in 2013 as a rough layout artist on Frozen, going on to work on such films as Feast, Big Hero 6, Zootopia, Ralph Breaks the Internet, and Frozen 2. She enjoyed the challenge of telling her story through color and street art, with over 100 custom mural designs created for the project.
According to Vander Vliet, the directing experience helped her learn how to rely on her teammates, especially when she struggled to find answers. “The biggest thing I learned is that it’s okay to say, ‘I don’t know exactly I want. Maybe you have an idea?’ Then, you must lean on those people, because when they get inspired, they bring so much to the table. It was great to see people say, ‘Hey, what do you think?’ You realize, they suddenly they have this great idea.”
In Drop, a newly formed raindrop falls to earth for the first time and has an unlikely and heartfelt encounter with a young girl that proves to be uplifting for both.
Director Trent Correy started at Walt Disney Animation Studios in 2012 as an animation trainee in the Talent Development Program. He most recently oversaw the animation of the beloved character, Olaf, among others in his role as Animation Supervisor on Frozen 2. His other credits include Frozen, Big Hero 6, Zootopia, Moana, and multiple shorts.
For Correy, working with small teams of collaborators was particularly rewarding. “Normally, we work with such big teams on the features, which is great,” he states. “But the small teams were just so collaborative. It felt like a student film. I haven't felt like that since college… having five people in a room that usually don't come together to solve a problem. Good ideas can come from anywhere. You can get a visdev artist, an FX artist, a TD, an animator and a layout artist in a room and solve a really tough problem that might've taken longer in a bigger pipeline. I like the scrappy nature of this program and it's something I want to keep exploring in my work at the studio.”
Elephant in the Room
In Elephant in the Room, a lost baby elephant is taken in by a boy and his father to work on their banana plantation. As the two quickly bond, the boy discovers that his new best friend yearns for her family and home in the wild.
Director Brian Scott began his career at Walt Disney Animation Studios as an animator on Frozen. He then went on to work on such films as Big Hero 6, Zootopia, Moana, Frozen 2, and the 2015 Oscar-winning short, Feast (on which he served as Head of Animation). A chance childhood encounter with a baby elephant, and, many years later, the arrival of his first child, provided the inspiration for Elephant in the Room.
With only four months to make a film, Scott was quick to solicit help and run with any good idea his team presented. “Making the film was quite improvisational at times,” he describes. “You had to open yourself up to the best ideas in the room. We didn't have time to mull over any particular decision. You just kind of rolled with everyone. ‘That's a great idea.’ You tried to pull the best ideas from everywhere you could. With such little time to make these films, all the best ideas were getting pulled into the film. So, everyone felt like they're contributing and being integral to the filmmaking, which was I think great for everyone on the team.”
In Exchange Student, life is hard enough for an exchange student at a new school. But as the only earthling at a school for aliens, the central character in this fanciful story is the ultimate outsider and must prove her worth to be accepted by her unusual new classmates.
Director Natalie Nourigat joined Walt Disney Animation Studios in 2015 as a story apprentice. She has gone on to serve as a story assistant and story artist on Ralph Breaks the Internet.
“Working with departments I've never worked with before was a real challenge,” she notes. “I'm a story artist normally, and that was really the only part of the pipeline that I knew. So, walking into a room with six animators and trying to speak their language, pick up on their culture and get the best work out of them, was difficult. But we had great people supporting us along the way, so it all worked out.”
In Fetch, a child wants to play fetch with her pet. Unfortunately, he's wandered deep into an imposing forest.
Director Mitch Counsell started his Walt Disney Animation career as a Character TD on Big Hero 6. He has worked in a similar capacity on such films as Zootopia, Moana, and Ralph Breaks the Internet, and most recently served as part of the Tactics Team consultancy group on Frozen 2.
“Everyone at the studio is hired for their specific department,” Counsell says. “But on these shorts, you realize everyone's capable of many different things. An effects artist might start doing paintings for your backgrounds. An animator might be doing storyboards or lighting. The cool part of this program is discovering all the little hidden talents in each department that you wouldn’t normally ever know about.”
In Hair-Jitsu, a young girl faces off against an evil hairdresser as she goes through imaginative lengths to avoid her first haircut.
Director Brian Estrada started at Walt Disney Animation Studios in 2013 as a production assistant on the 3D version of The Little Mermaid, and has worked in many different departments at the Studio including Story, Art, Editorial, Environment Assets, and Post Production, where he is currently the coordinator. At Disney Animation, his credits include Zootopia, Moana, Ralph Breaks the Internet, and Frozen 2.
After finally getting the hang of directing a short film production team, the biggest challenge for Estrada was going back to his regular job when the project was completed. “You're pulled off of your day job, you're given the keys to the ship for four months, and at first, you don't feel comfortable at all,” he shares. “In the beginning, you're this little person who was a PA or a coordinator here. Suddenly, I'm here, I’m telling artists, ‘I don't really like the look of that,’ or ‘Can you do this a little differently?’ I wasn’t comfortable, or confident, until the end. And then it’s done and you’re like, ‘Well, now I want to do another one. I have the confidence now.’ Going back to my normal, everyday job was the most difficult part for me.”
In Jing-Hua, a grieving martial artist pays tribute to her recently departed teacher by creating a painted world using a magical form of kung fu.
Director Jerry Huynh is a General TD at Disney Animation, with credits including Moana and Ralph Breaks the Internet. Huynh drew upon his family roots and culture in telling this very personal story.
For Jerry, though arriving at a final artistic style, and finding artists who could design and animate his vision, was particularly difficult, his greatest challenge was more philosophical. “My biggest challenge was learning about myself,” he reveals. “That was the hardest part about this process. We're a very director driven studio, right? Every decision comes back to, ‘Well, what does the director want?’ So, everyone in the room was now looking to me. And then I’m like, ‘Oh, I’m the director now. So how do I make this decision? How do I know what I want?’ I don’t know what I want for lunch today, much less how I want to convey this emotion on the screen and what these people will be working on for the next week. Okay?”
“It’s about learning how to work with the team, give them enough input and stand back… because everyone you meet here is immaculate and amazingly professional in how they work with a director,” he continues. “As a director, I had to learn so much about what I prefer, and why I wanted things a certain way. Learning how to communicate that out was a completely new beast. And my life is better for it. I cannot begin to tell you how much my life is better for being asked for those things.”
Just a Thought
In Just a Thought, an awkward 12-year-old boy named Ollie experiences bubble trouble when his true feelings for a girl are embarrassingly revealed in the form of a physical thought bubble.
Director Brian Menz fell in love with animation at a young age and came to Walt Disney Animation Studios in 2008 as an animator on Bolt. He then went on to work on such films as Big Hero 6, Wreck-It Ralph, Frozen, Zootopia, Moana, and Ralph Breaks the Internet, and is currently an animation supervisor on Raya and the Last Dragon.
Reflecting on his directing experience, Menz comments, “Getting selected as part of Short Circuit, it's like somebody handed you the keys to the Ferrari. And you get to drive it.” His 2D film, designed with a graphic, retro comic book style, was challenging, especially at a studio focused on 3D/CG production. “Early on, we analyzed a 1980s comic strip we got on eBay, because current technologies don't do the dot pattern the same way,” he describes. “Angela McBride actually developed a way in Nuke to recreate that process. And I just kept coming to her like, ‘Oh, can we do cheek blush? Can we get this ink texture?’ Everybody was excited by the challenge of how we were going to make this work?”
Lightening in a Bottle
In Lighting in a Bottle, during a thunderstorm, a young boy's effort to capture lightning in a glass bottle as part of a science fair project succeeds beyond his wildest expectations. But he’s shocked when he discovers the consequences of this unnatural feat.
Director Virgilio John Aquino had early ambitions of becoming a comic book artist but turned towards a career in animation at the age of 26. Starting as an effects animator on Hercules and Fantasia/2000, he went on to work as a modeler on such recent features as Tangled, Wreck-It Ralph, Frozen, Big Hero 6, Zootopia, and Frozen 2.
For John, scheduling needed resources was his biggest challenge. “We had four months to make the film,” he notes. “Who we had working was all based on who was available at the time. At one point, I had a full animation staff. The, when Wreck-It Ralph had to be finished, half of them went away. To my production manager's credit, she really wrangled, pulled, cajoled and sold the rights to her first born in order to get animators to finish the film.”
Lucky Toupee is a clever bit of balderdash lifts the lid on an original tale about a hijacked hairpiece, a gang of larcenous leprechauns, and a budding romance.
Director Nikki Mull started as a trainee at Walt Disney Animation Studios in 2013 and is currently a Character Look Supervisor on Raya and the Last Dragon. Her credits include Moana, Big Hero 6, Frozen, and Frozen 2.
As the first Short Circuit director, in creating her leprechaun world, Mull was always challenged by the short production schedule. “For me, the pressure was mostly about time,” she describes. “I went first, and I really didn’t want to break the program. I didn’t want to take too long, so I felt a lot of pressure to get mine done in the time that I was allotted. A lot of my decisions were based on that. I kept to a look that we normally do here because that's what the pipeline is designed for. I knew I could do a lot of the different jobs, like modeling and texturing, really fast, so that I could the film done on time.”
An adventurous young boy discovers that puddles can be portals to a fantastical world but struggles to get his sister’s attention away from her phone to see the magic in the world around her.
Director Zach Parrish joined Walt Disney Animation Studios in 2010 as an animator on Tangled. He then went on to work on such films as Wreck-It Ralph (Supervising Animator), Big Hero 6 (Head of Animation), Zootopia and Moana (Animator), and Ralph Breaks the Internet (Workflow Supervisor and Animator).
The two big challenges for Parrish were first, finding a “short” version of what originally was a much longer, feature film-fronting short pitch, and second, finding ways to harness CG technology fine-tuned to produce realistic water and create something much more stylized. “I had a six-minute idea around Puddles that was more of a feature short pitch,” he explains. “It was a real challenge trying to whittle down that bigger idea in my head down to 90 seconds and figure out a beginning, middle, and end that felt satisfying. But the bigger challenge was trying to hit the quality bar I was looking for. Finding technology to create the 2D-ish look of the film was a big hurdle. It’s easier to make realistic splashes, things like that, but it wouldn’t have looked right stylistically. Finding something that felt handcrafted but still moved in a believable way and felt like water, was a huge technical and artistic challenge as well.”
In The Race, Grim desperately needs one more soul to win his work competition, but his last scheduled collection at a rigorous bike race turns his world upside-down. At the finish line, he learns that life is not always about the trophy at the end of the race.
Director Terry Moews is a 23-year Disney veteran, who came to Walt Disney Animation Studios in 1996 to supervise and shoot the live-action backgrounds for the innovative computer-animated feature, Dinosaur (2000). Following Dinosaur, Moews was chosen to create the CG layout department for Disney’s Chicken Little. He went on to serve as Visual Effects Supervisor, Layout Supervisor, Studio Department Leader and Layout Artist on such films as Bolt, Big Hero 6, Tangled, Frozen, Zootopia, Moana, Ralph Breaks the Internet, and Frozen 2.
Every director in the program struggled with a short production schedule and limited resources. Though some started, stopped and began their productions again, they still had four months to make a film with artists who could get pulled off the team at a moment’s notice. Moews feelings about the abbreviated schedule were no different. “The big challenges were resource and time,” he states. “We had to maneuver our short around the big films that had to get done. We were a little Volkswagen putting along a four-lane freeway with nothing but big trucks all around. Getting the time and the resources to do what I wanted to do was always a challenge.”
In Zenith, a luminous, ethereal stag bounds effortlessly through a dark expanse of the universe, leaving a galaxy of stars in its wake. When it accidentally creates a black hole that threatens to devour everything in sight, the stag is forced to make a decision that will leave a lasting impression.
Director Jennifer Stratton started with Walt Disney Animation Studios in 2013 as a look development artist for Special Projects/Legacy, and segued into feature production where she has contributed to the look of such features as Zootopia, Moana, Ralph Breaks the Internet, and Frozen 2. On Zenith, she was particularly excited to be working with the effects team to push the design of the characters, and bring unique, cool new visuals to the screen.
“One of the biggest challenges we all faced was the fact that we're given limited resources,” she states, “Time, artists, even disc space within the studio. All the shorts in production at the same time had to share disc space. My short was very FX heavy and there were literally days where we had to stop working and clean up our disk space. We couldn't continue working anymore. There were definitely days where we're like, ‘Oh man, my artist has to roll onto a show, and I don't have a modeler anymore!’ So, balancing expectations with what resources were available and still trying to accomplish our goals was very challenging.”
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.